Since prehistoric days, we were primed to think in the short term — not knowing where our next meal would come from or, for that matter, when it would come. It was all about surviving the day, not preparing for the future. So if your savings account looks less than ideal, don't beat yourself up — your brain is essentially working against you.
Fortunately, scientists called behavioral economists have spent a lot of time and effort figuring out work-arounds and strategies to get you to make the right financial moves anyway.
Here are five behavioral hacks you can use to build yourself an emergency fund.
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Automate, automate, automate, said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind." If you get a raise or come into extra money, put it away by setting up an automatic transfer directly from every paycheck so you don't even see the money. "Anything you can do with your money where you're automatically saving and not spending, without having to make the choice to do it, leaves you with more resources to make better choices later," said Yarrow.
Whenever you're about to make a purchase, whether it's a $5 accessory or a $50 sweater, take a moment to imagine yourself five years in the future. Yarrow says this makes it easier for people to make good spending decisions in the moment. This idea of projection could make you realize you don't need the item after all, that you might not have it in five years or it might not still be giving you joy that far down the road.
Are you a "big picture" person or a more "detail-oriented" one? Knowing the answer can help you save more. In a study done at the University of Rochester, participants were grouped into big-picture or detail-oriented thinkers, then tried to follow a savings goal — either big and abstract ("save as much as you can") or concrete (save $150 per paycheck).
Surprisingly, the most successful savers were the ones who followed the savings strategy opposite to their normal way of thinking. So, big-picture thinkers following specific savings goals and detail-oriented thinkers following big-picture savings goals were the most prosperous. "What I think it really comes down to is challenging ourselves outside our normal mental rut," said Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar.
Test the theory on yourself — if you're more big-picture, aim for a specific dollar amount per week, and if you're detail-oriented, try a broader goal, like saving "as much as you can." Keep an eye on your progress — and how you're feeling — to see if you need to switch things up or try a different strategy.
Figure out what gets you motivated
If you don't feel a little excited to put money away, it's because you haven't found your motivation yet, or as Newcomb aptly puts it, "it's probably because you don't want to do it." She said social psychologists theorize there are two types of human motivation — the first "avoids" something negative, the second "approaches" or goes after something positive.
To figure out which you are, ask yourself: Do I try to hold on to what I have (avoid) or go after new things (approach)?
"Once you have a clue, then you want to set your goals up to match with the way you're naturally motivated," says Newcomb. If you're an avoid person, it's better to think of this savings account as an emergency fund to avoid negative things that could happen. (If you're still not motivated, take some time to think about what it would be like if you ran out of money but your car broke down or you had a large medical expense. It'll get you there.)
If you're an approach person, reframe the goal as a freedom fund, which gives you the ability to say, "I'm sick of this job," "I'm sick of this relationship," "I'm going to China for six months," or "I'm doing what I need to do to be in control of my life,"" said Newcomb. "You're "approaching" feeling powerful and in control of your life — think, "I'm putting power in the bank.""
"We really respond well to new beginnings because we're able to make a break from how we behaved in the past to how we behaved in future," says Newcomb. So if you've got a birthday, new apartment, new job, new relationship or the tried-and-true New Year's Eve coming up, you can take advantage of the "fresh start effect."
Line it up with making a resolution to change your savings behavior. You can even do this with the advent of a new financial chapter — a raise or a tax refund.